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An iceberg in treacherous waters: Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows

Past the Shallows is set on Tasmania’s rugged south coast. bravoechnovember

MILES FRANKLIN REVIEW: The winner of the 2012 Miles Franklin Award will be announced this week. In preparation, The Conversation brings you academic reviews of the five novels shortlisted for Australia’s biggest literary prize.

Favel Parrett told me once that she’d been worried about what Tasmanians would make of her book. It’s as windswept and desolate as the coast she describes, and does the island no favours.

She was concerned that we might, in one way or another, find offence in it, perhaps in the depictions of cruelty, of cruel fathers and cruel weather. She had only spent a small part of her life on the island, but the significance of it stayed with her, as it does with most people. Of course, she had nothing to worry about. Tasmanians know better than anyone what sort of place we live in. Showing it back to us truthfully, as Favel Parrett does, is more likely to win you respect than scorn.

And Past The Shallows is a remarkably truthful book. The three brothers at the centre of the story, Joe, Miles, Harry, lead odd, stunted lives, their emotions trimmed until they grow in miniature. Their reality is day-to-day, meal-to-meal. Only Joe seems to grasp at something beyond the small town where they live. He is old enough to get out, but not old enough to takes his brothers with him. In their airtight world that feels like a crushing blow.

Hachette Publishing

“The dignity of movement of an iceberg”, Hemingway said, “is due to only one-eighth of it being above the water”. The other seven-eighths of a book, the emotional core, must exist below the surface, its existence called into the reader’s mind by the truthfulness of what is written. To write this emotion, this hidden part, Hemingway would tell us, is to descend into sentiment.

It’s a lesson Favel Parrett has taken to heart. The language in which she operates is so spare, so devoid of pyrotechnics, that it feels journalistic. She denies us, for the most part, even the music of rhythm and melody. Miles on the beach: “It was cloudy and overcast, but light was still reflecting off the water and it hurt his eyes.”

Or Miles in the car: “He rested his head down against the cool window and his cheek and face vibrated with the buzz of the engine, the movement of the car on the road.” You can respect prose like this, in the same way you respect gruff old fishermen, but like a gruff old fisherman you don’t want to spend too much time with it.

But her instinct to avoid sentiment at any price has pay-offs as well. When, in a few lines of poetry, the elevation of that skeletally thin voice arrives, it shows us something we don’t expect.

Miles paddling out on his surfboard: “He lived for this, for these moments when everything stops except your heart beating and time bends and ripples – moves past your eyes frame by frame and you feel beyond time and before time and no one can touch you.”

This is terrific stuff. The splitting of that sentence around the em-dash, the equal weighting it takes either side, suggests the unspooling of time that Miles is experiencing and delivers something beyond words, an insight that we see and feel at the same time. There is more than a little Tim Winton in it.

The book is rounded out by the repetition of a scene we see early in the book; only this time we see it from Miles’ point of view. He is at the beach with his brother Harry, who is searching about for beachy treasures, shells, driftwood, and cuttlefish. The waves are calling to Miles, but he puts his board aside to help Harry with his hunt. It is small moment, pitifully small, but the emotion behind it is so clear and full and desperately sad that it would move even the most cynical of us. The lesson of Hemmingway’s iceberg has never been more dutifully applied.

There are dangers in writing this way though, and here’s what Hemingway had to say about them: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” This is all well and good. But a writer, he said, “who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” It is a fine distinction between suggesting that the iceberg has another seven-eighths, and exposing it as hollow.

While Favel Parrett manages to maintain the balance for the most part, there are places where the iceberg seems to have melted. Foremost of these is in her handling of the boys’ father. He is violent towards them all, breaking Joe’s arm, grabbing Mile’s by the throat, and shaking Harry. He shows them no love whatsoever.

Why is he like this? The suggestion is that he is in pain: his wife has died, his brother as well. He has a hard life diving for abalone and he drinks to ease the pain. That’s it. Now, the relationship the boys share with their father is the absolute heart of the book. To leave him so thinly drawn gives the impression of a hollow place in the writing. I can’t empathise with him, I can’t understand him, and therefore the seven-eighths of emotion below the water is missing whenever he is on the page. He is sketch of a man, rather than being the full thing.

But in the end the book succeeds despite the flimsiness of the father. This is because the focus remains, as it should, on the relationship between Miles and Harry.

Favel Parrett finds many quiet moments for them to round out their connection, and these all work beautifully. Miles making dinner for Harry; Miles finding Harry’s beach treasures on the floor of the bedroom; Harry sharing his showbags with Miles. These are, in the best sense of the word, small moments.

Not small of spirit, or of skill – far from it, in fact. But small the way that diamonds are small, perfectly formed and precious. Collectively, they add up to work of genuine emotional pull, even if that emotion does wane in places. This is a book to be consumed at a quiet time, in a quiet place, surrounded by photographs of the people you love.

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